Home > 2011 Posts, About Dave > That’s Not Your Problem, Dave

That’s Not Your Problem, Dave

“Dad,” I whined in my breaking, young-teenage-boy voice, “I need a new lawnmower! This one clogs up all the time. It’s taking forever to finish! The bleeping thing had just shut down for the umpteenth time in 30 minutes and I was feeling very put upon during my regular Saturday morning chore of mowing our half-acre yard.

Dad at Work About the Time of This Story

It was high summer in a lakeside suburb of Seattle, so it only rained ever other day – or maybe every third day in a really good year. The grass was wet, or at least quite damp, as usual. And long. It grew really fast with both rain and that strange bright light in the sky to encourage it. In fact, if a homeowner in the Seattle area left the yard untouched from March through September, if would fully revert to an impassable temperate jungle with hawser-thick blackberry vines everywhere. At least, that’s how I remember it from here in the High Desert.

Dad stood up and walked over from the back patio, where he was building some planter-boxes for Mom. “What’s the problem?” he said.

“I told you, Dad,” ramping up into full Pointless Teenager mode, “we need a new mower!”

“That’s a solution, Dave, not a problem. What’s the problem? What is it that’s not going right?”

I was confused. If I had a new mower, then I could be done in time to meet my buddies at 2:00 like I’d promised. Maybe earlier, now that I thought of it, since Dad would have to go to the store to get a new mower. My clueless teenage spirits brightened.

“So what’s going wrong?” Dad prompted again.

Dad Retired

“I have to meet Mark and Jeff at 2:00 and the stupid mower is taking forever. It clogs up with mushy grass crud all the time and stops. Then, when I clean it out, it just does it again two minutes later. We need a new mower, like I said.”

With a small nod toward the mower, Dad said, “Show me how you clean it out, Dave,”

So I grabbed the handle and bounced the old rotary mower forward and back really hard to shake the grass crud loose. Then I bounced it side to side really hard for good measure. After that, I rolled it back a few feet to show Dad all the crud that came loose.

“And now what would you do next?” I started to reach for the pull cord to fire up the mower, but Dad raised his hand and said, “You don’t have to start it. Just tell me.”

“Well, I run the mower over the crud and then go on. And a minute later the mower stops again. We need a new one.”

Dad shakes his head and says, “Would anything else than a new mower work?”

“No,” I say, full of teenage omniscience.

Then Dad put me on guard. He said, “What if I bet you a new mower and double your week’s allowance against half your allowance? If I spend five minutes working on this mower and it works fine, then I win. If not, then you win.” Dad never lost a bet when he made the offer. What was I missing?

A Valid Problem Statement ISN'T We Need a New Something

But, being an idiot teenager, I knew I’d done everything to make that crappy mower work. So, destined to lose, again, I said, “It’s a bet!” Visions of showing up at Mark’s place with two weeks’ allowance burning a hole in my pocket had unhinged me.

So, Dad smiles and says, “Ok.” Then he turns the mower on its side and pulls out his pocket knife. In less than a minute, he has carved off all the three or four inch thick layer of grassy crud inside the mower and its bag chute. Then he goes into the garage and grabs a file from its hook on the wall. He gives the mower blades a half-dozen file swipes each, tosses the carved-off crud into the mower bag and sets the machine right-side up. With at least a minute to spare.

I was financial toast. This was a Dad Bet, and just like every other time, before or since, he won. The mower worked like a champ. And now I knew how to keep it working that way.

After that expensive teenaged lesson, I always think about what the problem is and worry when I hear someone else present a solution as if it were the problem. If you don’t know what the real problem is, you will never find a solution. Instead, you will just waste time, money and everyone’s patience.

Here are a few examples from today’s news:

  • Raise taxes after tripling government spending. Your nation-killing debt problem is not a lack of revenue.
  • Get rid of Mubarak in Egypt. Your problem is not overthrowing a dictator only to get something much worse, but rabid Jihadi power and woman-dooming Sharia Law.
  • Shut down coal-fired power plants. Your problem is not coal or CO2, its forcing the use of artificially expensive energy sources that destroy prosperity.

Don’t mistake some idiot’s solution for the real problem, no matter how whiney he gets. He probably wants to take your money and run off without doing anything except waste your time and try your patience.

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